Wrest Park at War
Auberon Herbert, 9th Baron Lucas, known always as Bron, offered his country house – Wrest Park – for use as a hospital during the First World War in August 1914. Wrest was used first as a convalescent home before being transformed into a base hospital that November. This account of the hospital is based on the family scrapbooks that Bron’s sister, Nan, compiled in the 1930s.
Image © London Metropolitan Archives
Bron and Nan Herbert
Bron’s resourceful and fiercely independent sister, Nan Herbert was responsible for setting up and running the hospital. After training at the Metropolitan Hospital in London, she took up the position of Matron in February 1915. Under her energetic leadership Wrest Park became recognised as one of the best-run country house hospitals.
No one had a matron in view, nobody could find one; so finally it was settled I was to step into the post experimentally, and retain it subject to the approval of the medical staff. My dream that night of a huge wave with crest breaking mountains high over my head, expressed my feelings.
– Nan Herbert’s diary, February 1915
More about WWI nursing at Wrest Park
The Hospital in Action
Soldiers arrived by train at Ampthill station where they were met by a fleet of ambulances and cars that transported them to Wrest Park. On arrival the soldiers were stripped and bathed in the ‘louse house’. They were then taken onto the wards.
Train after train came in, and the convalescents were pushed on more rapidly than ever to the neighbouring convalescent homes (which were by now running almost as smoothly as the Hospital itself) in order to make room for more and yet more patients.
– Nan Herbert’s diary, June 1916
Wrest Park Hospital consisted of three wards: A-Ward, for the most serious cases, was located in the ground floor reception rooms; B-Ward occupied most of the bedrooms on the first floor; and C-Ward filled parts of the service wing. There was an operating theatre and x-ray room on the first floor.
The Wards had developed individual characteristics and owing to Nurse Butler, A Ward became notorious for its jokes. She was an elderly Irish woman with wild blue eyes always searching for a chance of a rag. The men adored her, but never quite got over having been taken in when she arrived one afternoon dressed up as the Duchess of Montrose, and went round asking the patients ‘And how are you my poor fellow and where were you wounded?’
– Nan Herbert’s diary, March 1915
In total, 1,600 patients passed through Wrest Park Hospital. Most men stayed only for a few weeks before moving on to convalesce. Activities were an important part of daily life to keep up morale. These included amateur dramatics, cricket matches, fishing, and billiards competitions.
Paddy dressed in a tabard of the de Grey coat of arms, danced Irish jigs in a corner, and Whalley in a very décolleté dress with bulging front, pursued Dr Beauchamp to ask him in ringing whispers ‘about the baby’.
– Nan Herbert’s diary, September 1914
The medical staff at Wrest Park Hospital consisted of a Medical Officer, who could call on the services of three London-based surgeons, and a team of about 24 nurses. The nurses worked shifts so there was always someone on duty. The domestic arrangements were initially similar to those of a country house, with a team of servants headed by the housekeeper Hannah Mackenzie. Later responsibility for provisioning was handed to Mr King, who was in charge of the Commissariat department.
On August 7th we went down to Wrest to commence preparations for the Hospital. Hannah Mackenzie…was in charge of the house with a small staff under her. She was young, highly intelligent, and very hard working, and it seemed as if she would be the ideal person to run the domestic side of a private Hospital.
– Nan Herbert’s diary, 7 August 1914
Wrest Park’s life as a hospital came to an abrupt end on 14 September 1916 when the mansion was badly damaged by fire. All 156 patients were safely evacuated, but the damage was so serious that it was not practical for the hospital to be reopened.
In A Ward the patients, with great speed but with no sense of flurry, were rolled out in their beds on to the Terrace and from there into the garden. Except for the pale anxious faces one would hardly have known that anything out of the ordinary was happening.
– Nan Herbert’s recollections of the fire, September 1916